To pin or not to pin

Can you count the number of times you’ve sewn -for example- a collar to a neckline and had the experience that the one side will set just fine but the other side is either too large or too small? Or what of joining one front side seam to a back side seam and ending up with disparity? While it can be due to inaccurate patterns, it’s just as likely due to the practice of pinning. I’ve created a test project that I’ll show you, illustrating why pinning can create problems where there were none.

Pinning -as a matter of course- is something that enthusiasts and less experienced designers will debate endlessly. I decided to put it to the test after reading yet again, someone ridiculing those who didn’t pin. It’s one thing to criticize someone’s practices when the method one proposes as a replacement is superior. It’s quite another thing if the method is inferior. As Twain said, “It’s not what you don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what you do know that just ain’t so”. As it happens, quality and attention to detail in garments, whether custom or manufactured, is impinged by the practice of pinning rather than enhancing it.

Unfortunately, some pinning adherents think the singular reason one chooses to abstain from the practice is to save time. This is simplistic; the actual reason is accuracy. Cutting unpinned goods is much more accurate. Moreover, the issue of time is debatable. If you’re making a one-off, it takes a lot more time to make a pattern out of material (presumably oak tag) that can be traced. So rather than “saving time” by tracing, it is actually pinning that is the time saving strategy. So, if one truly wants a high quality garment with all due attention to detail, they will take the longer route of tracing the pattern rather than pinning tissue. This is why manufacturers will go to the bother of creating prototype patterns on oak tag even though they may never produce the item and it takes more time. It is annoying when some people have the attitude that manufacturing necessarily involves lowering standards. It is often exactly the opposite. Replication requires higher standards enhancing uniform duplicity. One-offs don’t.

I made up an example to test the pinning process. As it stands, with all of that in and out going on with the pins, physics dictates that the pieces closest to the top will be the shortest. In this case, fabric being what it is, the two fabric lengths stuck together masking the full effect. But that’s the thing about fabrics, they tend to do that. And that’s the thing about using standard practices. If you have a good practice, it should work regardless of fiber properties. If you have to use one method for this, another for that and still another for this other fabric, most likely your standard practice isn’t standard. In general, that’s the tip off to a proper method. You shouldn’t have to do it one way for this one thing and this other way for another.

Here’s the pattern pinned, a relatively short length of goods representing the length of the average collar and neckline. That pattern is not flat. Just how will this shortened length commensurate to the pattern’s design?

And below it is cut out.

Below the pieces are unpinned and lengths compared.

Below is a better view. The green is the shortest, although theoretically speaking, it should have been the paper that should have been shortest. Pinning melds layers, this fabric is very grabby but the paper is smooth and slides.

Just comparing the two fabric lengths, below you can see the difference is 5/16ths of an inch.

Now, can you imagine the results if the collar were the longer purple fabric and you were trying to sew it to the shorter green neckline fabric? It’d never fit. This is exactly why one side of the collar and neckline will be okay and the other side will not. Still worse, imagine if you pinned the two with the shorter piece on top. The piece on top will be even more pin-shrunk, amounting to shortening the shorter piece even more! Now imagine you were trying to pin sleeves with the sleeve cap ease typically found in home sewing patterns. That reminds me of another related concept. I’ll put up another short entry about it.

Of course, detractors may placate and attempt to justify themselves by saying I trimmed or whatever to reach these results but guess what? You can replicate it yourself. Besides, if I had staged it, I would have made the paper the shortest length to arrive at the theoretical results. If you choose to duplicate the experiment, I recommend to watch your handling. One thing that people do (that makes me cringe) is to run their palms over the fabric to smooth it out with varying degrees of firmness. This lengthens the goods. They should be at rest. So, if you duplicate the experiment, be mindful that before and after cutting, you’re not artificially impacting the goods.

And that’s not to say you should never use pins while cutting out and sewing, just that you should use them sparingly. Until recently, I really didn’t have any (decent) pins. I had to go out and buy some and made a muck of it until Joyce Ireland took pity on me and sent me some (thanks again!). I had a visitor once who was amused by my then dearth of pins. I had four of them; all that was left of a half pound of T-pins I’d bought ten years prior. She thought it amusing that I didn’t use them but then needed to. So much so that she took this picture of me using them. As you’ll see below, I’ve concealed the evidence :).

I.D. and O.D.
Beginner’s guide to sewing with industrial machines
Beginner’s guide to sewing with industrial machines pt.2

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  1. becky says:

    Reading this has made me realize that I need to buy more weights (I’m using some heavy glass lenses (they’re my favorite weights) and some heavy metal washers as well.

  2. Karen C says:

    OK, I have to admit that I’m a pinner–always have been. But after seeing the visual, showing the discrepancies, I will train myself to be a “patter” of fabric and step away from the pin magnet. Wish me luck.

  3. esther says:

    How interesting! I was just thinking of a related topic – fabric handling. That is fabric handling versus pinning. I intentionally designed a hat to minimize/eliminate pinning, trimming, and clipping. Still working on it, but your pictures illustrate what I have been thinking about.

  4. Lisa says:

    You always give me something to think about. Thanks for the “to pin, or not to pin” essay. I like to pin just enough to keep the piece down and no more. Lots of times I will use my rotary cutter to cut out the pattern because I don’t like the way my sheers cut.

    PS. What I like about your photo, other than your hiding the pins, is the person in the background with their feet up! :)

  5. every since I got my electric rotary cutter more than a year ago, I pretty much stopped using pins and only use weights now. Aside from being more accurate, it eliminates all the needle (pin) sticks I used to get…LOL!

    With friendship,

  6. Teijo says:

    I love that picture – you look so cute.

    After reading this I just had to go count my pins, and found I only had two left (one of which was bent). That surprised me – I really thought I had more.

  7. Teresia says:

    I have been teaching my son (who is 7 and has autism) to sew. He loves it and is fascinated with it all. I have used pins off and on. However, he would not be able to use them, weights are much better in that case. I learned with pins, but now it is my laziness which made me stop. Love the picture!

  8. I’m totally with you on pinning. Change the hypothetical collar situation to, “When Ann went to join the collar to the body….” and you’ll get my aha moment. I use rotary cutters and weights for just about everything. And I don’t pin my layers prior to sewing on long seams.

  9. Marie-Christine says:

    I’m with M. How about sewing? I’ve way minimized my use of pins for sewing over the years, but I can’t do without them entirely in slippery fabrics. As to cutting, all of this makes a lot of (topological) sense. I’ve never looked back since being introduced to rotary cutters..

  10. Lisa Bloodgood in Portland says:

    I’m currently undecided as to use scissors or a rotary cutter and use both.

    I always found it annoying to have to pin the pattern down and never knew until the last year or two that it was much nicer to use weights and trace around. I got white, yellow, and black china markers and the yellow seems to work best on more fabrics.

    As for pinning what’s being sewn, I don’t pin a lot, just tricky stuff and if I have to stretch something as I go.

  11. CLF says:

    Wow, who knew pins were so evil? I knew there was a reason my home ec teacher should have been burned at the stake!

    It never cease to amaze me that every time I tune in to this site, I manage to feel inadequate. Turns out I’m a fool for easing in a sleeve all these years and using pins. And now, evidently just stroking fabric is enough to induce cringes in this illustrious crowd.

  12. Kathleen says:

    It never cease to amaze me that every time I tune in to this site, I manage to feel inadequate.

    I regret you feel inadequate. That’s not a problem I can solve. I think most people come here because they’ve realized the information propagated via popular means doesn’t work for them anymore, if it ever did. My purpose has never been to reinforce existing instruction. Were said instruction sufficient, there’d be no need for this. If you can’t make your way work for you, I certainly can’t do it either. It was Albert Einstein who said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    I’m well aware that people resent having their most cherished *beliefs* criticized but perhaps rather than abdicating through flippancy and sarcasm, you expend the intellectual and physical rigor of trying it. Flippancy and sarcasm is no substitution for exertion. Unsubstantiated criticism is the easy way out.

    I suppose with great effort I could make this a safe place for you, stepping lightly to be certain of never killing any of your sacred cows but then you’d have to provide me a list of your beliefs. Never having taken home ec, I have no point of comparison. Perhaps my perspective is due to having had only one sewing lesson in my life so I had less to resent or unlearn. Unfortunately, if I made this a safe homogeneous place for you where you’d never be offended, I’d probably lose the vast majority of my readers.

    Some people prefer to read only those things that reinforce their existing beliefs. While priding themselves on being open-minded for reading, the tendency becomes one of reinforcing their boundaries rather than challenging them. As unpalatable as I find it, I read things I *don’t* agree with. In such cases as is possible, I stubbornly persist in expending the effort toward creating proofs or doing the research to form a rebuttal consisting of contrary evidence rather than responding with emotional verbal protests.

    Aronson (1996 p.184-8) says it best:

    …when people are confronted with opposing beliefs or ones incompatible with their own, they are likely to ignore or negate that belief. They do this in order to convince themselves that they have not behaved foolishly by committing to false beliefs. To assure themselves that they have been wise in supporting their position, they often convince themselves that those who oppose that position are foolish and truly objects for contempt and derision .

  13. Eric H says:

    My college roommate and I wondered if it was possible for some alien civilization to retrieve the Golden Disk on the Voyager spacecraft — complete with whale song, a greeting from Jimmy Carter, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, etc. — and find some alternative means of interpreting those such that they got, “We’re from earth and we’re coming to kill you! Prepare for war, alien!”

    There’s always room for such misinterpretation, but I think CLF must have squinted very hard to interpret this post or this site in a way that made him/her “feel inadequate”. Perhaps everyone who is committed to their preconceptions should send Kathleen a list so she can avoid challenging those. That way, their repeat visits to this site won’t be such a burden to their self image.

    With that policy in mind, I’m looking forward to a series on how to hand baste zippers for fun and profit!

  14. ayomide says:

    I am in graduate school and I have never heard any of my teachers say that or in undergraduate school yet I have experienced the shrinkage and didn’t know where it came from. I have also had the thought that the pattern isn’t flat but when I cut at home I don’t have weights but at school I do. I will try w/o pins next semester and see what happens. great insight.

  15. Liana says:

    Anyone remember a program on educational TV called “Sewing Without Pins”? (Looks like it was on for only one season in 1988.) A little English guy named Alfie sat there and showed you how to do things, and he was totally anti-pin. It was a different experience than the usual sewing program.

  16. ioanna says:

    In my one and only sewing class I was also instructed to pin everything like crazy among other annoying things. As I progressed with my patternmaking and following the advice and awesome tutorials on this site -and The Book- the need for pins just disappeared to my delight. I really don’t understand why some people repeatedly do things the long and difficult way. In that ‘class’ there was pinning, followed by basting, followed -finally- by the actual sewing of things. Needless to say this took forever, you couldn’t tell if pattern pieces really fit etc etc. I think this WAS the home-ec way of doing things. Maybe it was devised in the old days in order to keep women incredibly busy so that they wouldn’t find time to possibly form an original thought! He he.
    Being challenged does often induce that little denial feeling in most people but I wouldn’t have this site any other way. Go on, take something else apart! :) Marc Twain quotes welcome but optional :)

  17. Anwen says:

    This is fascinating! I do use pins, but very sparingly (a couple on the grainline when I have made sure the stupid damn pattern is on the stinking grainline, one in each corner) and I am always somewhat obsessive about making sure that the pattern and fabric still lie flat – if the fabric is inconsistent with that aim (e.g. very bulky) then I remove all but the damn grainline pins* and go for weights only. Well, I say weights, I mostly mean random bits of flotsam and jetsam grabbed from nearby shelves, such as 10p pieces, my mobile phone and (if I’m really not thinking straight) my, er, rotary cutter…

    *yes, this may perhaps be a sign of addictive behaviour, or something… just, you know, once I have managed to get the pattern straight, I daren’t risk it escaping!

  18. Alesia says:

    This is interesting and timely; I’m making an evening dress from a late 19teens/early 1920’s Butterick pattern and it illustrates where to place weights for cutting!! So what did I do- I went out and bought weights to use and a rotary cutter. Great article.

  19. Nancy W says:

    Very interesting. When I used to sew in a previous life, I pinned incessantly. Now, I rarely use pins, although I have them in all weights and lengths. I use them sparingly, but often use them to mark “match points” Thanks for the visual on the length differences. For cutting, I use weights and a rotary cutter most of the time; however, lately I’m becoming reacquainted with my shears.

  20. Oxanna says:

    I pop in again and there’s a wealth of posts. :)

    All of this is very interesting. When I first started sewing, I used pins by the dozen. Now, I use them far less, and I’ve changed my method of pinning. Obviously, pinning along the length of the pattern (in-and-out) was too time-consuming and it shifted the fabric. So I just stuck the pins in straight through the pattern, fabric, and cardboard mat. This works far better, but not as well as pattern weights. Which I should go buy, actually, instead of grabbing half-full lotion bottles and rolls of heavy tape. (Anwen: I’ve discovered that shears make *excellent* pattern weights! ;D)

  21. kate setzer kamphausen says:

    For weights, I use antique/vintage irons. They have a handle, are well-balanced, are perfectly smooth on the one side, and cost me $11 for three irons! Got the idea from my patternmaking teacher, who uses irons for weights in her own studio, and kept an eye peeled forever after in vintage/junk shops. I highly recommend them!

  22. Pingback: I.D. and O.D.
  23. While I agree that fewer or no pins are better, your example shows a bad way to pin: parallel to the edges and too many of them. I was taught in my textiles and apparel construction classes to pin into the corners and perpendicular to the edges to avoid the very problem you are illustrating.

    Of course, in the industry, they use oaktag traced or marker drawn patterns, so pins are neither used nor needed. Now that I use computer printer paper patterns for my custome sewing, I only use 2-4 pins to hold each piece in place. If I was using tissue patterns, I might add a few more. With my cutting table against the wall, I prefer not to use weights.

    Phyllis Carlyle
    M.S. and B.S. Textiles & Apparel
    Former patternmaker/designer

    P.S. This website is great.

  24. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    Lately I’ve only used pins in sewing to match the starting point of each piece to the other one. I use 2 pins so it doesn’t rotate, but don’t pin other than that unless it’s something super slippery or troublesome.

  25. Sheila O'Kelly says:

    Fascinating. Thanks very much. All new to me and really interesting. How do you sew waistbands, and seams etc without pinning? Would love to know.

  26. Kathleen says:

    Follow me:
    The only way to sew without pins is if you have confidence it will all come out right. True or true?

    If you knew, were 100% certain, it would come out exact, wouldn’t you sit down and sew that on, without worrying if it would fit and notches line up? Pinning would then be a waste of time, correct?

    That’s the hint right there. Pinning is a waste of time provided:
    Your pattern is correct
    The fabric was cut correctly
    Your machine is feeding evenly.

    So that’s what we do. Patterns are checked for accuracy. Fabric is cut and spread according to established practices and lastly, we check the machine to make sure it’s sewing evenly.

    This is the thing. All of the above is kind of a hassle to fiddle with if you’re only making one item, I get that. However, if you’re making multiples, you save time and frustration by making sure those three things are resolved.

    You’re not stupid or incompetent, you use pins because you truly need them. However, take away the defects that precede you and you won’t need pins anymore either.

    You might like this entry I wrote: Deconstructing a sewing class. There are many many comments on that entry. I suggest reading them, they’re probably better than the post itself.

  27. Quincunx says:

    I’m not yet confident enough in the home machine, or in my cutting and handling ability, to sew an entire long seam without pinning. (I was. Then I had to go rip them all out when they didn’t align.) While I’m learning, I’m compromising. I laid the seam flat and made sure it aligned all along its length, then took tight hold of one part of it and sewed up a few centimeters’ worth of seam while I was sure it was gripped flat and not shifting and not misaligned, then laid the entire seam flat again and pounced on another spot. It was a huge waste of thread and time to have five short pin-like sewn segments along each seam before I put the seams through for their proper sewing. It violated two better procedures shown later in this blog. Still, it helped to have the seam gripped at checkpoints, but not pinned, not marred by the rippling that pins would introduce even if they were perpendicular to the seam. It came out even, and not pinned, and I didn’t have to buy anything new for this training-wheel step away from pins. Try it if you like, if you’re also still at the “pins or misalignment” stage of sewing.

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